Science and Society

May 6, 2015

By Elise Rodrigues


Plans to begin construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, on Mauna Kea have been put on hold by Native Hawaiian protestors near the chosen site. The 18-story-tall telescope, with construction costs ~$1.4 billion, will occupy 1.44 acres of summit, a larger footprint than any previous telescope project. Protestors argue that the TMT will result in irreversible environmental and cultural degradations. The telescope will, however, drastically improve astronomical research capabilities. In this instance, has science gone too far?


As it stands, there are 12 telescopes on Mauna Kea, none of which have the capabilities that the TMT will have. The new technology harnessed by the TMT would provide scientists with a powerful new tool. As the world’s most advanced and capable observatory, the TMT could allow scientists to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial life, planets inhabitable for humans, and asteroids. The implications of this research, such as a better understanding of Earth’s environment and resources, are long-standing and potentially life-saving.



With such drastic potential benefits come devastating costs. From a cultural perspective, Native Hawaiians take the lands and water of the islands to be sacred. In fact, Mauna Kea is considered a House of Worship for many natives. In addition, the construction and maintenance of the TMT would disrupt more than 8 acres of untouched land that is home to several endemic species in one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world. The structure would also store 5,000 gallons worth of potentially hazardous waste below the ground risking water and soil pollution.


TMT planners did hold more than 20 public meetings including consulting with representatives of the native Hawaiian community to encourage community engagement in the planning of this project. Despite these efforts, opponents remain frustrated that their views were not heard or respected. This highlights both the importance and challenges of community engagement surrounding science. Having engaged with the public about science and the impact of projects, how can we find paths forward? How can we pursue the benefits of science while still respecting concerns expressed within communities of key stakeholders, particularly in cases like the TMT where the portions of the community vehemently disagree?


Evaluating cases where proposed scientific endeavors meet with resistance requires a healthy dose of honest engagement, with both sides of the debate doing their best to listen and to be understood. It requires our best appraisals of likely impacts (both positive and negative) and alternatives. Even then, as we are witnessing in this case, negotiating a compromise will not be easy. Here, the ultimate question is, should scientists protect the land beneath their feet or gaze upon the stars?



Elise Rodrigues  is an undergraduate student at the Johns Hopkins University double majoring in Public Health and International Studies and an intern at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. She is a member of the Student Government Association, Thread Organization, and Phi Mu Fraternity.

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Elise Rodrigues

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